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story.lead_photo.caption This photo provided to the News-Times last August by a downtown business owner shows available parking at the Union County Courthouse filled up. The El Dorado City Council agreed last week to enlist the EPD in enforcing an ordinance which limits downtown parking to three hours per vehicle at a time.

In May, the El Dorado City Council voted to hire a downtown parking enforcement officer to address complaints about parking violations that have cropped up within the past year in the city’s Central Business District.

The 6-2 vote followed a lengthy and, at times, tense debate.

Last week, Council Member Paul Choate asked the council to move on the matter by making a motion to transfer the downtown parking enforcement officer’s position from the Department of Public Works to the El Dorado Police Department.

The discussion that followed the motion and a second by Council Member Dianne Hammond was also meaty, with an exchange of several ideas and hints of frustration at points.

The end result was a vote of 4-3 in favor of Choate’s motion.

Council members Mike Rice, Willie McGhee and Andre Rucks voted no. Council member Billy Blann, who proposed the hiring of a downtown parking attendant during in May, was unable to attend the July 23 council meeting.

Conversations have been ongoing about the need for an enforcement officer to administer the city’s downtown parking ordinance, which allows for three-hour parking in a controlled zone that covers several downtown blocks.

The ordinance is effective between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday - Friday, with the exception of legal holidays.

The downtown parking enforcement officer’s position has remained vacant since the city’s last officer was terminated in early 2019.

Soon afterward, members of the Downtown Business Association, Main Street El Dorado, the Murphy Arts District and downtown business and property owners convened a specially-called meeting with Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer to discuss problems that had arisen in the absence of enforcement.

They complained that employees who work in downtown businesses and offices were violating the three-hour parking limit and blocking customers from convenient parking spaces.

Smith-Creer subsequently formed a voluntary, advisory task force made up of downtown merchants, including members of the DBA, downtown employees and Police Chief Kenny Hickman to vet the matter and come up with solutions.

In subsequent meetings, the task force bounced around several ideas — including re-instituting downtown parking meters, developing a campaign to encourage downtown visitors to walk, assigning El Dorado police officers to a downtown beat, stricter enforcement for violations of the parking ordinance and implementing a mobile app that would take care of paid parking.

Smith-Creer previously said that a parking attendant did not work because many of the tickets that were being issued for parking violations were not being paid and people were continuing to violate the three-hour parking limit within the controlled parking zone.

Downtown developer and business/property owner Richard Mason, who has lodged several complaints about the issue, later agreed to free up a formerly paid, city-owned parking lot in the area of Elm, Cleveland and Oak streets.

As a service to the city, Mason had collected fees from the lot to be used to help maintain planters and other maintenance issues in downtown El Dorado.

Another free, city-owned parking lot is available on Locust Street across from the Murphy Arts District Amphitheater.

Union County Judge Mike Loftin and two other county officials also relinquished their assigned parking spaces around the Union County Courthouse to free up more parking within the controlled zone.

‘Civil Traffic Warden’

On July 23, Choate said the city council had not acted on its vote to hire downtown parking enforcement officer.

He noted that the economy — including downtown El Dorado, the city’s primary tourist attraction — has been stifled by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and as of late, issues with downtown parking have not been as pressing.

“Any point in time today, there are parking spots available, but if the restaurants get back to open full bore, if the retail shops get to rolling again, we are going to have the problem that we have not been enforcing our parking downtown so we will need to be doing something,” said Choate, who is actively involved with Main Street El Dorado and the Downtown Business Association.

He then motioned for the position and responsibilities of downtown parking enforcement to be moved from public works to the EPD, saying that he had adjusted the city’s budget, pro rata, to fund the salary and necessary training for the remainder of 2020.

Choate said he had discussed the matter with Police Chief Kenny Hickman, who explained that the EPD would handle training in the proper enforcement of parking regulations and the position would include the authority to issue parking tickets, handle traffic accidents and write incident reports.

Hickman the position would formally be called “Civil Traffic Warden.”

“There is a mandatory, two-week period of training. The training is set out in terms of prescribed time and topic but the curriculum is not there,” he said.

The EPD would be responsible for supplying a trainer and writing the curriculum for the program.

However, Hickman said the police department has had to modify operations due to COVID-19 and the situation has grown “complicated” due to officers having to work more overtime hours and trainers being tied up with new hires and experienced officers with various training programs.

Additionally, implementing the transfer would “severely compromise” the pool of candidates who would be interested in the position, the police chief said. He asked the council to hold off on the matter until conditions surrounding COVID-19 normalize.

Choate and Rice noted that medical experts are projecting another round of the virus in the fall.

Other ideas

Agreeing with Hickman, Rice also suggested that the council postpone the matter, at least until 2021 city budget preparations begin.

“We’re talking six, nine months. They’re talking October that this thing’s coming back around,” Rice said. “We’re going to be in the first of the year. This is something we can look at come January when we’re planning our budget.”

Rice, a downtown business owner, pointed to an idea he previously presented to the council, requesting research on privatizing downtown parking enforcement.

“It’s a private company. They take care of it and nobody has to worry about it,” Rice continued. “If there’s an issue, it’s between the person who violated the parking meter and the company. It works successfully in a lot places.”

Postponing the matter would allow time to research privatization and other options, he added.

Council Member Andre Rucks made similar statements, saying that privatization would generate revenue for the city and free up the EPD from an additional responsibility.

Turning to Hickman, Rucks expressed concern about the amount of working hours the parking enforcement officer’s position would require.

“If it’s three-hour parking, I think it should me more of a part-time position, at which point I don’t think we should rush it into your hands until we understand the job description, how many hours are going to be allocated toward what we really need for that eight- to five-hour block,” Rucks said.

McGhee and Council Member Vance Williamson, who also chairs the city’s Finance Committee, also said the council should postpone hiring a “Civil Traffic Warden” because of lingering financial uncertainties stemming from COVID-19.

“My thought is that if we wait until we go into budget season this year and plan for 2021, I’d be more agreeable to that,” Williamson said.

Choate amended his motion to move forward when the EPD is “comfortable with administering the program, doing the training and having it ready to go.”

Hammond again offered a second to the motion.

McGhee referred to Rice’s suggestion and said the task force that was formed by Smith-Creer should also have the opportunity to further explore options.

The mayor noted that the task force last met March 13, the same day City Hall “locked down for COVID-19.” She added that the council took on the matter when Blann’s motion to fill the downtown parking position was approved in May.

‘Kicking the can …’

“I don’t want to be the guy that takes credit for kicking a can down the road and that’s what’s happening here,” Choate responded.

“We’ve been dealing with parking downtown for months, pretty much for a year and a half now. We either need to go ahead and do something or get rid of that ordinance — one of the two,” he said.

McGhee disagreed, saying that the council is simply being cautious with the city’s finances “in a time (we’ve never) been in before.”

“But since we seem to have a plan, I don’t think we’re kicking the can down the road if we‘re just postponing it for a couple of months,” he added.

Smith-Creer also responded to Choate’s comments, saying that his reference to the last year and a half seemed to point to her tenure as mayor.

Smith-Creer took office in 2019.

She said the root of the parking issue has been debatable.

Some downtown business owners have said parking has not been an issue. Rather, the refusal to comply with the parking ordinance, even by some who have been complaining about violations, “is an issue within itself,” the mayor said.

She noted that the free, city-owned parking spaces are hardly used by downtown employees and employers.

“A lot of talk has come through a lot different people but a lot of that has been self-motivated,” she said.

“I’m glad you spoke to the ordinance,” Smith-Creer told Choate. “When we talk about … the need for a parking attendant or doing away with the ordinance, I think that is something that is definitely before the council to decide.

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